| Security personnel accompany pilgrims on Jammu-Srinagar National Highway on Wednesday. (PTI)
Srinagar/Jammu, July 9: The first batch of Amarnath pilgrims left Jammu this morning amid tight security with heavily-armed paramilitary contingents guarding over 177 vehicles carrying 3,500 pilgrims.
“The pilgrims left Jammu under tight security in 177 vehicles. We have made elaborate arrangements along the highway,” the deputy inspector-general of police, Jammu range, Farooq Ahmad, said.
The pilgrims reached the Nunwan base camp this evening from Jammu. After a night halt, 2,700 pilgrims will start a mountain trek that will be spread over three days with night halts at Sheshnag and Panjtarni via Pahalgam. They will reach the cave shrine on Saturday.
Thousands of army, paramilitary and state police troops have taken position along the shrine route. Security forces are also guarding the Jammu-Srinagar highway for the safety of the pilgrims. Dog squads and paramilitary bomb-detection and disposal squads have been pressed into service.
The pilgrimage began at 6 am in Jammu amid the usual chaos and confusion, with the administration at a loss about how to deal with the flood of pilgrims wanting to be part of the first batch to leave.
“Everyone wants to be in the first batch, whether he has the registration or not. How can they be accommodated'” wondered Lokesh Jha, divisional commissioner, Jammu.
The refusal to allow everyone to proceed today and the way in which families were split for different days sparked protests. Some Shiv Sena activists shouted slogans against the police.
Those who did make it to the first batch were brimming with enthusiasm. They beat drums and sang religious hymns.
The pilgrims were eventually flagged off by minister for roads and buildings Madan Lal Sharma. As they began moving, the pilgrims waved at the soldiers posted along the route and in places, the soldiers returned their greeting.
Some pilgrims were unhappy at the lack of arrangements. They said no shelters had been provided, despite being charged a huge fee. Nor had voluntary and religious organisations been allowed to set up langars, they said.
A Punjab resident, Y.B. Gupta, called it “an assault on the pilgrimage” and “intolerable”. He said it appeared as though the government was trying to degrade the pilgrimage.
About 1.07 lakh pilgrims have registered for this year’s pilgrimage to the cave shrine, located at a height of 12,729 feet. The journey leads through some of the toughest Himalayan pony paths along treacherous mountain routes to the narrow cave that houses the ice lingam that Hindus believe belongs to Shiva.
Militancy in Kashmir over the last 13 years has made safe conduct of the month-long pilgrimage a big annual challenge. The sheer numbers make it difficult to ensure the safety of every pilgrim.
Militants tend to target the yatra and last year, eight pilgrims died in an attack on the base camp at Nunwan in Anantnag district. One militant was killed in the attack.
A route leads to the shrine from Baltel on the foothills of the Zojila pass. It takes only a day but the route is considered steep and difficult. Eight hundred pilgrims are being allowed to take the Baltel route.